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Old Courthouses Raise New Concern

Friday, January 3, 2014

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Like old soldiers, old courthouses never die. Unfortunately, they don't fade away, either.

Typically, they sit, crumbling and useless, for a year or more while someone determines what to do with them.

And that's the problem, says the Government Accountability Office in a new audit: Scores of obsolete federal courthouses have been replaced in recent years with little or no thought given to the future of the originals.

Fort Myers Art Center
Built in 1933, the former George W. Whitehurst Federal Building in Ft. Myers, FL, was sold for $215,000 to the City of Ft. Myers, which leased it to Florida Arts Inc. It is now an art center.

"Better Planning Needed Regarding Reuse of Old Courthouses" is both the title and key recommendation of the GAO's report, following its review of how the General Services Administration and judiciary are planning and managing the reuse or disposal of old courthouses.

The GAO focused its analysis on the fates of 66 federal courthouses that were replaced by 79 new courthouses in the last 20 years. The agency zeroed in on 17 courthouses, reused and disposed of, for case studies.

Reusing Courthouses

The audit examined how the government is re-using old courthouses that were retained and the challenges involved; how GSA disposed of old courthouses, the process involved, and the results; and the extent to which GSA's proposals for new courthouses considered the future use of old courthouses.

The bottom line: Reuse may be an admirable goal, but it is easier (and more cheaply) said than done.

Trenton Courthouse
In Trenton, NJ, the judiciary rented space for a district courtroom until the new courthouse was built in 1994. However, the judiciary only released this space to GSA in 2012, GAO reported.

"Retaining and re-using or disposing old courthouses can be challenging for GSA, because many of them are more than 80 years old, do not meet current court security standards, and have historic features that must be preserved by federal agencies in accordance with historic preservation requirements," the GAO noted.

By the Numbers

Of the 66 old courthouses studied, the GSA retained 40, disposed of 25, and is in the process of disposing of another, GAO found. The reuse decision considers, among other factors, a building's condition, the local real estate market, and the existing and projected base of federal tenants, GAO said.

Of the retained buildings, the judiciary continues to occupy 30 of them—25 as the main tenant, most commonly with district and bankruptcy courts. (The judiciary leases more space in federally owned buildings than any executive or legislative branch agency.)

However, the audit found, about 14 percent of the total space in the retained courthouses (nearly 1 million square feet) remained vacant as of May 2013—"significantly higher" than the 4.8 percent overall vacant space in federally owned buildings in 2012.

Eleven of the courthouses were more than 25 percent vacant, and three were completely vacant, the audit found. The GSA classified 41 percent of the buildings as "nonperforming" in 2013, meaning that they did not cover their operating costs.

Hammond, IN, Courthouse Hammond, IN, Courthouse

The award-winning new U.S. Courthouse in Hammond, IN, was completed in 2002. Its predecessor remained vacant for six years until it was sold to First Baptist Church of Hammond for $550,000.

Moreover, the audit found, all of the courthouses required renovations, and finding non-judiciary tenants for them proved difficult, "due to the buildings' condition and needed renovations, among other reasons."

Vacancies and Rents

Disposing of an old courthouse took, on average, 1.4 years, GAO added. The average sale price: $1.5 million.

However, in the case of a courthouse in Sacramento, CA, the process took more than 10 years, while a courthouse in Reno, NV, remained half-vacant for nearly 20 years.

In Camden, NJ, the GAO found that the judiciary had paid rent to GSA since 1994 for courtroom space that had not been built. In Trenton, the judiciary was paying for courtrooms that it was using as administrative space.

Meanwhile, officials said, the increase in online filing and research has lessened the need for bricks-and-mortar clerks' offices and law libraries. For example, the GAO notes, the U.S. Courts Design Guide baseline for libraries in new courthouses is about 9,200 square feet, while the existing library space in the Richmond, VA, courthouse is about 17,000 square feet.

The disposal process is often slowed by the buildings' historic status, their specialized designs and various parties' interest in reusing them, the GAO said.

Hidden Costs

GSA is not required by law to include plans for old courthouses in its proposals to Congress for new courthouses, GAO noted.

KCMO courthouse KCMO old courthouse

The former courthouse in Kansas City, MO, has been converted to the Courthouse Lofts apartments.

However, as with other building proposals over a certain dollar threshold (currently, $2.79 million), GSA is required to devise a "comprehensive plan" to provide space for all federal employees in the area, considering suitable space that may be available in nearby existing government buildings.

In addition, GAO and the Office of Management and Budget have previously recommended complete cost estimates as a best practice in capital planning.

In this case, GAO found that old courthouses needed more than $760 million in renovations to be reused—costs that were "often not included in GSA's new courthouse proposals."

Recommendations for Proposals

"Specifically, for 33 of the 40 retained old courthouses, the new courthouse proposals described plans for reuse by federal tenants, but only 15 proposals specified whether renovations were needed to realize these plans, and only 11 included estimates of the renovation costs," GAO said.

Moreover, GAO found that some old courthouses were partially or wholly vacant while awaiting renovation funding, sometimes resulting in money spent leasing space in commercial buildings for the judiciary.

GAO recommended that in proposing new courthouses, GSA and the judiciary include plans for re-using or disposing of old courthouses; any required renovations and the estimated costs; and any other challenges to re-using or disposing of the buildings.

GSA agreed with the recommendation and said it would work with the judiciary to address its housing needs.


Tagged categories: Adaptive reuse; Government; Historic Structures; Maintenance + Renovation; Renovation

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